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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


A Daily Gazette community blog
Ideas on greener living

Spring blooms, spring compost

My sister moved last winter, and this spring she is enjoying daily surprises as the gardens the previous owners planted come to life. First it was the columbines in a shady, stone-edged garden on one side of the house, then the grape hyacinths and mystery purple spikes, tangled in the grass on a hillside.

Next came four dogwood trees and a huge hedgerow of lilacs — lavender, purple and white. She’s got blueberry bushes out the kitchen door, and a big patch of decorative grasses and who knows what else in the backyard. She spent a few days trying to decide where to plant herbs, not wanting to disturb garden beds before their contents are known. I wander her yard looking for the likely spot for a compost heap.

The rhythm of planting and waiting, amending the soil, digging up and moving plants, trading and sharing, weathering the disappointments and enjoying the surprises are all part of gardening. My sister is waiting to see what she has before adding what she wants — a butterfly bush, peonies, maybe an apple tree.

My neighbor and I have been trading irises and daffodils — light purples for dark, whites for yellows — both of us cutting back on what we have too much of and bringing in new colors and textures. We marvel at the blooms on the transplanted lilac bushes we both found growing wild, deep in the woods where it was too dark for them to ever flower.

The ones she planted in front of her house are in bloom for the first time, drooping heavy with sweet, lavender blossoms. I have a new deep purple one, dug up from a former homestead on my in-law’s land and replanted near our rock wall. It took a few years, but now the blossoms are lovely.

Gardens take time, and time moves in cycles. Even now, at the very start of our vegetable garden season, we are preparing for next year’s gardens by starting new compost piles. Just as people who rely on wood heat in the winter have to cut and stack all summer long, people who garden are always thinking about next year’s soil.

And summer is the best time for composting. The spring thatch and leaves you’ve raked out of the lawn, the grass clippings from mowing season, all mixed in with your food waste will use the heat and humidity of summer to break down into garden soil, to be spread next year on your flower or vegetable beds. And the flowers and vegetables will thrive from the added nutrients.

For my sister, I’d recommend a garbage-can compost pile, the simplest, neatest and most urban of compost piles. She’s not really used to country living yet. This kind of composting is also ideal for people in community gardens, because you can set the garbage can in a corner of your plot. It’s also good for small gardens in a city, town or suburb, set in the garden or just outside the kitchen door.

You can use a metal or plastic garbage can, a new one or one no longer fit for trash pickup. It should have a good-fitting lid you can hold down with a couple of bungee cords. Drill a few holes in the bottom and sides (if it’s an old can, those holes are probably already there for you) to let air in and water out.

If the can is in your garden, just throw all the weeds in as you do your weeding. You can bring down your household compost — those coffee grounds and orange peels — and add them too. If the can is by your kitchen door, it’s in the perfect spot for collecting your kitchen scraps, and your lawn clippings too.

It’s easy to stir the compost — just tip the can over, with the lid secured, and roll it around a little. Even if you never stir it, it will break down eventually and be soil by next spring, ready to help out your new garden.

Our own compost piles are huge, courtesy of the big ox, the chickens, the bunny and now the two baby calves we are raising for the next ox team. We use wood pellets in the rabbit’s indoor hutch and litter box, and dump them onto the manure pile near the big ox’s shed. The ox, calves and chicken get wood shavings or straw as bedding, so that gets mixed in too when their rooms are cleaned out. Our kitchen scraps make up just a tiny part of the pile, since most of the food scraps get eaten by the chickens.

The piles get moved, via tractor, to be stirred and to age, and when they are finished breaking down, they look like loamy topsoil. Then they get spread on gardens near and far, hauled by ox cart, tractor or the ancient manure spreader we picked up at auction some years back.

Most of the spreading is done now, and we’re starting new piles for next year, and the years after.

But you don’t need animals, big or small, to make good compost. Summer will do all the work of breaking down your yard, garden and kitchen waste. And turning trash into soil and nutrients for your garden is like magic — just the kind of magic a garden depends on.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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